The rapid advances in information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the last decade have led to a significant creation of wealth, creating unprecedented means and opportunities to share information sources and knowledge. Simultaneously, there has been a concern about the widening digital divide within and across nations, primarily caused by inequitable access to ICTs and their attendant benefits. The digital divide is more alarming in the context of marginalisation of rural communities and the widening information and opportunity gaps between rural and urban communities.
A number of experimental or pilot activities have been initiated all over the world, especially in Asia, which aim to address the challenge of narrowing the digital divide. Such projects have shown that a blend of innovative technology development and financing, and fostering use of ICTs as a common resource can offer new opportunities for rural women and men to derive benefits from the use of contemporary ICTs. Many of these initiatives require sources of information, knowledge and expertise, available in considerable measure in the intergovernmental organisations, non-government organisations and in the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) system, all of which work towards enhancing food security and reducing poverty. Through these initiatives, new ways have now become available to take such expertise and knowledge to those partners in development who need them most. With the enhancement in the definition of national agricultural research and education systems (NARES) to include new partners, particularly, the non-profit and for-profit private sector, it is now possible to apply our combined knowledge to make an impact on the broad issue of food security. It should also be acknowledged that the partnership between the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the United Nations Educational Social and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) for rural education provides a potential avenue for the introduction of ICTs-based education for rural development.
The recent debates on overcoming the digital divide are indicative of increasing interest among international agencies and investors in promoting the use of ICTs in development (UNDP 2001; IFPRI 2000). South Asia is ranked among the regions with a relatively low rank in human development achievement as well as in terms of the gender development index. The two significant aspects of human development are health and education. In health, access to food and food security are important elements. In todays world of complex institutional interactions, education should also include access to and effective use of information to guide decisions and to shape both livelihood and living strategies. Information access to all stakeholders in the community also facilitates gender-balanced participation in economic and political spheres.
FAO recognises the importance of ICTs as tools that serve the rural community by improving access, quality and relevance of information to support livelihood and food security strategies. The international community has emphasised the importance of viewing access to information from a rights perspective, and opportunities are now available that allow blending the rights approach to information with the sustainable livelihoods approach. Prior to the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS), it is important that the development community examines the value of ICTs for every segment of global society and particularly for those who have been marginalised in the previous phases of technological revolutions, namely rural communities, illiterate rural women and populations living in resource poor environments and isolated areas. ICTs offer the opportunity to bring their concerns into the mainstream of development as well as to empower them with information to connect to the outside world, creating opportunities to explore alternative approaches to livelihood and lifestyles.
Within the United Nations the great concern looming ahead is that gender considerations should become an integral part of the WSIS process and proceedings to ensure gender equality in the information-driven economic development and knowledge society. In the year 2003, the Committee on the Status of Women (CSW) focused on the issue of ICTs as tools for the advancement of women; the outcome provides advice to the Secretary General of the UN on the situation and to the ICT Task Force in the UN as well. FAO, as a member of the Gender and ICT Working Group in the region, as a member of the Inter-Agency Network on Women and Gender Equality (IANWGE) task-force on ICTs and gender, and through participation in CSW, provides inputs to the dialogue and the process to ensure gender equality in the global agenda for ICTs for development and social participation. Within the organisation, FAO has identified ICTs and gender considerations as a key technical area in the Gender and Population Division in collaboration with other technical units.
In this region, it is important to recognise the contrast of Asian talent driving the IT-based global economy and the marginalisation of Asian rural women in the information economy. Remedial strategies should be designed to address the spatial and gender imbalances in access to ICT resources. In the south Asian region an additional concern is the high prevalence of illiteracy among rural women, which presents a further obstacle to the advancement of women in ICTs-driven development. In the Asian region, the mature distance education/open university systems have served the urban population well, but have had little impact on rural residents.
On the education front a productive partnership should be forged between distance education/open learning educational systems and well-developed agriculture education systems to expand the educational options leading to improvement of the social and economic situation for rural women and girls. It is yet another type of education for all challenges to be managed within the dynamics of the knowledge society with gender equality. The support and technical contribution of the Commonwealth of Learning to this consultation demonstrates the joint commitment of the agencies involved to take distance education to rural women.
In this milieu, the present consultations outcome with the participation of regional experts makes a substantial technical contribution to support FAO in advising the relevant bodies within the UN, as well as in the global and national arena in developing strategies for harnessing ICTs and distance education systems for the advancement of rural women.